Anthony and the Johnsons
Pros: sounds weird and classy
Cons: hard to understand
What a cool cover image this is for the debut album of this British chamber pop band where Antony Hegarty, shown above, plays piano. Since then they’ve released three more studio albums and three live ones, but I daresay this blue fairy image is the most striking!
I first heard Antony and the Johnsons when Antony gorgeously sang “If It Be Your Will” on the Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man documentary/tribute,. Not only was his silky voice vibrating like a harp, but his hands were flying around. More recently I heard him in haunting vibes ending the 2007 or so movie Princess of Nebraska (which was filmed entirely in California!). The Asian “princess” in the film was in shock after having an abortion and so his mellow, weird-sounding voice fit her mood, and ours, perfectly and makes for an unforgettable ending to an average movie.
Antony has described himself as transgender. Being a transgender doesn’t mean you’re gay, but you may be. That’s inconsequential. It’s rather about gender freedom, feeling the desire to be male one day and female the next, preferring neither. They, like gays, have an unconventional or untraditional sense of identity and this should be celebrated as much as sexual freedom.
I can’t really relate to someone like Antony who isn’t simply fantasizing, but perceives himself as both genders. In his first album he doesn’t sing about this like he does in his more celebrated second album, I Am A Bird Now, which won 2005’s Mercury Music Prize. I’m not sure how to describe what he sings here.
Let me start by giving you the titles of the nine songs in this brief 34-minute album: Twilight, Cripple and the Starfish, Hitler in my Heart, Atrocities, River of Sorrow, Rapture, Deeper Than Love, Divine, Blue Angel. His music is considered indie/experimental/folk, I believe, and his voice reminds you a bit of Aaron Neville. I’ve listened to Antony and the Johnsons for a month, but to the captivating, haunting music, not really the words. Neither my friends nor I can make out what he’s saying most of the time.
I finally checked out the lyrics that came with the CD and this is one weird guy. I think he’s actually in some movement to popularize weirdness in America. He grew up in England with Boy George for a role model, but you won’t hear him singing about anything but his feelings. He’s a very intense person without a sense of humor, it would seem, but I confess…the seemingly nonsensical lyrics of “Cripple and the Starfish” upon reading them aloud to a friend made us both burst into peals of nervous laughter. Here’s how it begins:
Mr. Muscle forcing bursting
Stingy thingy into little me
But just “ripple” said the cripple
As my jaw dropped to the ground
It’s true I always wanted love to be
And it’s true I always wanted love to be
Filled with pain
Upon rereading this and the rest of the lyrics, I realize this must be about a sexually abusive relationship and it’s nothing to laugh about, but at first it sounds very strange and disturbing. Antony sings mostly about torturous relationships and his loneliness. I cannot figure out “Hitler in my Heart,” though. I mean “from the corpses flowers grow” turns me off. God and Christ are mentioned in a couple songs. Maybe that’s to make up for talking about Hiltler. Maybe the album takes us on a fantastic journey through the nightmares and dreams of Antony, through his fears of being consumed with hate, misery, brokenness, through his hopes of seeing the Rapture, being in the Rapture with his baby, burning in flames like he’s dying. Maybe, but I always thought flames were just in hell. Hmm.
It’s a fascinating album that sounds at once fragile and courageous, intimate and shocking. I’ve never heard another singer like Antony Hegarty and so I recognized him pretty quickly at the end of that movie. Maybe. Besides Antony’s mesmerizing, hard to understand voice and his intensely personal, poetical lyrics, we are treated to a full ensemble of lovely instruments for an elegant, classy effect. We hear piano, drums, harp, bass, violin, flute, clarinet, sax and guitar paying tribute to Antony’s voice. I don’t need to understand him to enjoy the album, but simply be in a quiet, thoughtful mood.